CJ Reviews: The Observant Life

The Observant Life is reviewed by RABBI NEIL GILLMAN

by Rabbi Neil Gillman

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The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, Martin S. Cohen, Senior Editor, Michael Katz, Associate Editor, with a Foreword by Arnold M. Eisen and a Prolegomenon by Julie Schonfeld. The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, 2012.

Over the past 30-some years, whenever a Conservative rabbi or layperson sought to resolve a particularly obscure or controversial matter of Jewish ritual observance, the conventional first step would be to “Check it out in Klein.” “Klein,” of course, was the late Rabbi Isaac Klein, an accomplished scholar, congregational rabbi and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, whose A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (1979) was the first comprehensive survey of Jewish ritual law incorporating traditional halakhah with interpretations by the rabbinic authorities of Conservative Judaism.

Originally designed as a curriculum for the education of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “Klein” quickly became omnipresent in the libraries of Conservative rabbis and in the homes of concerned Conservative laypeople. Klein was published by the seminary, soon followed by a remarkably productive publishing enterprise on the part of the Rabbinical Assembly (frequently together with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), which included the various editions of Siddur Sim Shalom (beginning in 1985), the Etz Hayim Humash (2001), and more recently, Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010).

And now, continuing this extraordinary enterprise, we are gifted with The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, a compendium of over 900 pages, over ten years in the making, with introductory material by the editors, Rabbis Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, by JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, and by Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice President Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, with contributions by 34 Conservative rabbis, men and women of all halakhic orientations and generations, and, gratefully, with a comprehensive index. In testimony to its contemporaneity, The Observant Life is available on various electronic readers.

A simple glance will demonstrate that this is far from an updating of Rabbi Klein’s work. Klein hardly needed updating; it was a monumental achievement for its day. It was the first, after many failed attempts, to provide guidance to our lay community on the entire body of Jewish ritual behavior from a Conservative standpoint including decisions of the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. It will remain close at hand for its many loyalists.

The differences, however, are real. First, on matters of style, whereas Klein is published as a code of law, with sections and sub-sections, The Observant Life espouses a narrative style with the legal material embedded in sentences and paragraphs. On matters of substance, whereas Klein concentrated almost exclusively on ritual matters, The Observant Life devotes an entire third of its contents to matters of moral and ethical behavior, to what our ancestors dubbed issues that define relationships between people (mitzvot she-bein adam le-havero) as opposed to those that define our relationship with God. Issues such as Between Grandparents and Grandchildren, The Environment, Individuals with Disabilities, and Animals occupy as much space as The Dietary Laws, Shabbat, and The Jewish Life Cycle. Finally, contemporary perspectives on technology, medical ethics and human sexuality demand new consideration. References to decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards remain omnipresent.

But possibly the most important accomplishment of this book is less in its detailed behavioral prescriptions and more in its subtle understanding of precisely what role halakhah should play in our social structures when we define ourselves as Conservative Jews. Rabbi Cohen suggestively analyzes, in his preface, the two realms in which halakhah lives: the idealized realm of ritual behavior – the realm of kashrut and Shabbat, of marriage and divorce, and of mourning and burial – and what he calls “the arena of human society” – the banal aspects of human life, how we eat and how we dress, of lawyers and of advertising executives, of how we treat employees, of journalists and of doctors trying to infuse their practices with matters of faith. “It is the realm of real people living in the real world.” Ideally, the two realms must complement each other, which is Rabbi Cohen’s vision of what it means to be a Conservative Jew, and ultimately it is his vision that inspires this entire volume.

Rabbi Cohen is a touch apologetic about not including theological matters in his listing of halakhic obligations. The apology is not necessary. First, Maimonides was unique among Jewish thinkers in insisting that doing theology is also a mitzvah; most codifiers disagreed. But in fact, this volume is suffused with theology. Very much in the spirit of contemporary legal theoreticians such as Robert Cover, the style of The Observant Life understands that law is always embedded in narrative. It is the very evolution of our contemporary narrative that makes a volume of this kind mandatory at this time. The ultimate opponents of this approach are Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn who distinguish sharply between law and belief in matters of religion. Cohen voices the hope that some future volume might address what contemporary Jews can believe. I and many others avidly pray that that volume be next on the movement’s publishing agenda.

Rabbi Cohen’s volume may then serve as our long-awaited attempt to construct a Conservative theology of halakhah. I was overwhelmed in opening to the section identified as Deeds of Lovingkindness. This is where the unique accomplishments of The Observant Life come to the fore. To include in the realm of halakhah issues such as how we treat animals and individuals with disabilities, interfaith relations, the environment, relations between siblings, marriage, and sexuality is to confirm Rabbi Cohen’s judgment that halakhah must deal with the interface between the world of ritual behavior and that of real people living real lives in our real world. A student with whom I shared a few pages of the book suggested that while other halakhic anthologies seem to speak down to the reader, this one seeks to initiate a conversation, as all successful narrative does.

A word about sexuality – more precisely the three sections on sexuality: Marriage; Sex, Relationships and Single Jews, and Same-Sex Relations, by Rabbis David Fine, Jeremy Kalmanofsky and Elliot Dorff respectively. The tone of the chapters is captured by Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s comment that his aims are more “…ethical and social than narrowly legal.” One can only admire the courage with which Rabbi Kalmanofsky attacks the complex of issues regarding sexuality and single Jews, most specifically, the five pages titled Nevertheless, Sex Outside Marriage.

Beyond courage, four additional characteristics of Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s discussion are significant. First, he is exhaustive in quoting all of the traditional material on these issues, medieval and modern responsa including past rulings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, all carefully annotated, and all the relevant Talmudic sources and controversies, which are manifold. Second, he is up-to-date on all the contemporary research studies of human sexual behavior. Third, he is never apologetic about the distance that separates the traditional positions and modern practices. Fourth, he provides options for those who seek to embody at least the spirit of traditional halakhah with their personal impulses.

My sense is that for those who will dip into The Observant Life for the first time, just to test the waters, this is the chapter that they will read. The material is controversial, intrinsically intriguing, and a significant piece of the life experience for many contemporary adult Jews. Second, if any part of the traditional halakhah can be dismissed as anachronistic, this is the one. Third, if the case can be made for at least beginning to live a halakhic life as a Conservative Jew, this material will provide the acid test. If this stands up, so will the rest of the body of halakhah.

Finally, The Observant Life is a tribute to the Conservative rabbinate. The scholarly richness of the discussion, the flow of the writing, and the comprehensiveness of the material should be a source of pride for the entire Rabbinical Assembly, and by extension to our lay community. To the contributors and their editors, to Gershon Kekst and the other donors who funded the enterprise, and to all who devoted themselves to the multitude of thankless tasks associated with seeing a work of this kind into print, a hearty thank you. Yishar kochachem!

Rabbi Neil Gillman is Simon H. Rifkind and Aaron Rabinowitz Emeritus Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.